Clayton Tunnel: an Accident Waiting to Happen

Published by: RichardB on 19th Mar 2017 | View all blogs by RichardB

I did say somewhere that my previous railway blog would be the last, but having'finished' the thrid draft of my WIP I thought I'd catch my writing breath, as it were, with another one. Norton Fitzwarren was the most recent accident I've blogged about: this one is the earliest.


There are many paraphrases of Murphy's Law, but the one I think expresses it best goes 'If it's possible for something to go wrong, sooner or later it will go wrong.' The only trouble is, to take the appropriate precautions against things going wrong, you have first to be aware of the possibilities you're guarding against.

When we gasp in horror at the recklessness with which the railways were run in the early days, with an almost total lack of the safety precautions now considered essential, we should remember this. There were many dangers that simply never occurred to anyone until the accidents happened.

In the very early days the dangers (apart from boiler explosions, which, with the infant metallurgy of the times, were much commoner then than later) were minimal, because the first steam locomotives went little faster than walking pace, but by 1829 the 'Rocket' had got up to 30mph or so at the Rainhill trials. As the years went by and trains steadily got bigger and faster, the entire British railway network became an accident waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before mishaps minor and not-so-minor would be put in the shade by an accident that would earn the name of disaster and shock the nation.

The London Brighton and South Coast Railway had the misfortune to host that accident, and with grim irony it happened at the one place on its system where a primitive effort at safety precautions was in force.

Like every other railway at the time, the LBSCR ran its trains on the time interval system: no train was supposed to pass any given point until a certain number of minutes had elapsed since the previous one. But the idea of a collision inside the one-and-a-half-mile length of Clayton Tunnel, where the Brighton to London main line passed under the South Downs, was so appalling that it was worked as a block section. In other words, no train was allowed to enter the tunnel until the last one had emerged from the other end.

This required co-operation between the signalmen at the north and south ends of the tunnel, and so a telegraph had been installed between the two boxes. It was a primitive device, only capable of sending pre-set messages, with a needle that moved to indicate which message had been sent. There were only three of them: 'Train in tunnel,' 'Tunnel clear,' and 'Is tunnel clear?'

There was a further precaution, a signal at each end that automatically returned to danger when the wheels of a passing train went over a treadle in the track. If it failed to do so, a bell rang in the signal-box.

Three telegraph messages and a pair of automatic signals: this appeared to be all that was necessary for safe operations. No doubt, no one had envisaged a scenario that would require more. That scenario occurred on Sunday 25 August 1861.

It's a busy morning at Brighton Station. Two extra trains have been scheduled to leave before the regular 8.30 express: an excursion from Portsmouth, due out at 8.05, and a Brighton to London excursion, due out at 8.15. Ten minutes and fifteen minutes. Nice safe intervals. Unfortunately, punctuality isn't the LBSCR's strong suit, and the Portsmouth train has taken its time getting from Portsmouth to Brighton. It's getting on for 8.30, and all three trains are still sitting in the station.

Assistant Stationmaster Legg is in a bit of a fluster. There's no point in sending out the 8.30 express on time, because it has a slower schedule and will hold up the two excursions. Anxious to avoid further delay, he dispatches the trains in an almighty hurry, in the order they're supposed to leave but not at the scheduled intervals. The Portsmouth excursion leaves at 8.28, the Brighton excursion at 8.31, and the express at 8.35. Three minutes and four minutes. Closer than the rules allow, dangerously close. And in the five miles or so of gentle uphill between Brighton Station and Clayton Tunnel there is every chance that at least two of them will close further on each other.

There are no workers' hours regulations in this year of grace 1861, and Signalman Killick at Clayton Tunnel South is working a twenty-four hour shift. Normally he 'only' works eighteen hours, but on Sundays he works round the clock to get a full day off later in the week. When the passage of the first train, the Portsmouth excursion, fails to return his automatic signal to danger, he doesn't react as quickly as he might have if he were fresh. By the time he has sent 'Train in tunnel' to Signalman Brown at the north end and looked out of his window, the second train, the Brighton excursion, is already passing the signal, which he hasn't got round to restoring manually to danger. And there is already a train in the tunnel.

Killick rushes out of his box waving a red flag, but the Brighton excursion carries on steaming and vanishes into the tunnel. Killick has no means of telling Brown that there are two trains in the tunnel. He can only send again the message 'Train in tunnel,' which he does.

But what now? Though the second train was still steaming the last he saw of it, it's possible that the driver saw Killick's red flag but didn't have time to react before the train went into the tunnel. Killick doesn't know whether he saw it or not. And he can't ask Brown how many trains have come out of the other end. The only question available to him is 'Is tunnel clear?' He sends it.

At the north end of the tunnel Signalman Brown is puzzled. He has received in quick succession the messages 'Train in tunnel,' 'Train in tunnel' again, and 'Is tunnel clear?' What's going on? It doesn't occur to him that there are two trains in the tunnel at the same time. There's a signal, and Killick with his flags, at the other end to prevent that. Maybe the second 'Train in tunnel' message was a mistake.

So when, almost as soon as he has received that third message, a train comes out of the tunnel and steams past his box, he replies to Killick's enquiry with 'Tunnel clear.'

At that moment the third train, the 8.30 express, is passing the defective signal at the south end, which is still showing clear. Receiving Brown's message 'Tunnel clear,' Killick heaves a sigh of relief, puts away his red flag, and waves a white one, the accepted indication for 'All clear' (green being some way off in the future). It is a fatal mistake. The train Brown saw was the first one, the Portsmouth excursion. What has happened to the second one, the one Brown was unaware of because Killick couldn't tell him about it?

If Driver Scott on that second train, the Brighton excursion, carries on through the tunnel, all will still be well. Even if he does get even closer to the train in front, that can be sorted out further down the line. But he has seen that red flag, and he decides he'd better stop. With only handbrakes to slow it, the train has gone about half-a-mile into the tunnel before it comes to rest. And now Scott too makes a fatal mistake.

Scott has seen contrary indications, a clear signal and a red flag, as he approached the tunnel. Something's wrong, and he wants to know what it is. The safe and sensible thing to do would be to sit tight where he is and send his guard back along the track to have a word with the signalman and warn any oncoming train, but he wants to have that word himself. It's not as if another train will be allowed into the tunnel until his own has cleared it. He begins to reverse his train out of the tunnel.

On the third train Driver Gregory has seen nothing to suggest that anything is wrong, but he is keeping a sharp lookout nonetheless. He hasn't gone far into the tunnel before he sees lights ahead of him in the murk, where no lights should be. With a swiftness that will earn him a commendation at the enquiry, he throws his engine into reverse and screws down his tender handbrake, but the other train is too close and it's not enough. The results are perhaps best left to the imagination.

Twenty-three people died and no less than 176 were injured. The casualties would have been much worse but for two factors: Driver Gregory's quick reactions and the flimsy open-sided carriages of the excursion, which resulted in many people who might have been crushed in the wreckage being thrown out into the tunnel instead. Fortunately Gregory himself was only slightly injured, and his fireman escaped injury altogether.

Public opinion was profoundly shocked by the accident, and its occurrence on a Sunday inspired many a hell-fire sermon, but the fact that it occurred on the only block section of the line did little to advance the cause of safer signalling. Assistant Stationmaster Legg's actions in dispatching three trains at such brief intervals (and against the rules) were found to be reckless, and they were indeed the primary cause of the accident, by not giving Signalman Killick enough time between trains to react to the emergency facing him. Legg was charged with manslaughter, but the jury threw out the indictment.

Amazingly, Driver Scott got away with his undoubtedly reckless reversal of his train. John Chester Craven, the LBSCR's Locomotive Superintendent at the time, was a fearsome character (the late railway author Hamilton Ellis once wrote that 'there was many a dry eye in Brighton Works when he took his hat down from the peg for the last time'), but his harshness towards his subordinates was matched by his ferocity in defending his department against accusations from outside, and his forceful arguments carried the day.

Both Killick and Brown escaped serious censure. There had been simple misunderstandings caused by the inadequate equipment they had to work with, and furthermore Killick's being forced to work a twenty-four hour shift to get a day off was castigated as 'disgraceful.' Yes, even in 1861. The crowning irony was that if Killick hadn't waved that red flag the accident wouldn't have happened, but he could hardly be criticised for trying to stop a train from going where it wasn't supposed to go.

The Clayton Tunnel disaster has had an eerie resonance down the years since. The tunnel has a reputation of being haunted: at times, it is said, you may hear the cries and groans of the wounded echoing from the tunnel mouth. The cottage that perches on top of the elaborately castellated north portal (insisted upon by the owner of the land on which it was built) is also said to be haunted. And Charles Dickens' creepily atmospheric ghost story 'The Signalman,' still probably the most famous English story ever written about railways, was almost certainly inspired by the accident.





  • Tony
    by Tony 1 year ago
    A terrifically absorbing account, Richard. So glad you didn't stick to your resolve for no more railway stories.
  • Stephen Mark
    by Stephen Mark 1 year ago
    Fabulous, Richard. The last part had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. On another allied matter, I recently read about the first widely reported casualty on the railways. On September 15, 1830 William Huskisson was killed by the Rocket at Newton-le-Willows during the opening ceremony of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.You may already know this, of course, but I think your take on it would be well worth reading. It seems to have been another chapter of accidents...
  • Stephen Mark
    by Stephen Mark 1 year ago
    And, of course, Huskisson was a minister of state!
  • Stephen Mark
    by Stephen Mark 1 year ago
    Had you heard of the Huskisson 'incident'? By all accounts, there is a small plaque commerating the event which is attached to a small 'shed'. Apparently it can only be glimpsed as one flies by in a train...
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 1 year ago
    Another fine account. well explained. So many moving parts, both human and mechanical. I do wonder if in this new digital age, we're any safer than we were.
    Flabbergasted that the Rocket only went at 30mph. I heard somewhere, that the first speeding ticket for a car, was issued for a top speed of 8mph in a 4mph zone (or something like that). Some people run faster than that.
  • mike
    by mike 1 year ago
    I caught the train to London on Friday and, when it stopped at Hither Green. the engine driver announced, over the intercom, that the train was not going to Charing Cross, but Cannon Street instead. We got out of the train and waited for the Charing Cross train. This arrived late, and then halted outside Waterloo Station for half an hour. I have to allow two and a half hours to be sure of arriving at a theatre on time. Th journey should take less than an hour?
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 1 year ago
    Yes, William Huskisson has a special, if melancholy place in railway history as the first person ever to be killed by a train. As I recall he spotted someone he wished to talk to on the other side of the track and stepped across without looking to see if anything was coming. People weren't used to anything moving faster than a galloping horse, which would announce itself by its hoof-beats, but the Rocket, I believe, was drifting quietly along with steam shut off.

    Likewise, 30mph is about twice the speed of galloping horse, and so seemed breathtakingly fast at the time. In fact one Dr Aloysius Lardner predicted that any speed much faster than that would prove fatal, as the air would be rushing by so fast that people would be unable to breathe.

    Mike, my father used to commute to Charing Cross, and was forever moaning about the delays between London Bridge and there. Some things never change...
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